The rules and lifestyle of Hasidic Jews seem mysterious. They adhere to strict beliefs and practices that appear complex. This guide will briefly explain the basics of their ultra-orthodox culture. It will outline some fundamental facts, and it will answer a few common questions.
Where are Hasidic Jews from?
Although the Jewish religion is over 2500 years old, Ultra Orthodox Hasidic culture began only around 250 years ago - in Eastern Europe. A new movement was introduced that emphasized physical activity over studying text. This movement had a heightened fraternal nature to it - participants formed extremely close-knit communities that centered around a grand rabbi leader (known as a 'Rebbe'). The movement survived through oppression, mass emigration and the Holocaust and is now located mainly in the USA and Israel. However, Hasidic Jewish community affiliations are based on the town or city where their families lived in Europe. There are dozens of sects - corresponding to various places of origin. For example, one of the largest sects is 'Satmar' - named for the city of Satu Mare in Romania.
The fundamental principle of Hasidic Jewish beliefs and practices is: "change nothing." The way that everything was back in Europe is how it should continue perpetually. This applies to language, clothing, food and every other aspect of their lifestyle. Yiddish is the default language. Yiddish is a unique language whose basis is German mixed with Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and English. Gender roles are traditional, and genders are kept separated almost all of the time (in school, synagogue, etc). Marriages are arranged, usually at age 17, 18 or 19. The Hasidic community is very fraternal - men and boys spend a significant amount of time in the synagogue together. Often they will also participate in feast gatherings with the Rebbe which entail joyous singing & dancing. The Rebbe is the absolute leader of the sect and he will rule on all religious beliefs and practices. Physical modesty is paramount - bodies must be covered fully and all clothing is formal.
Hasidic Jewish men are known for wearing long black frock coats and hats. This was the fashion among nobility in Poland, Ukraine etc. in the 18th/19th Century. The fur hat that is worn on Sabbath (Saturday) and holidays is called a 'streimel.' This hat can cost as much as $1000!
Hassidic Jewish women follow strict rules of modesty. Skirts hang below the knees and sleeves extend past the elbows. When a woman gets married the rule is that she must always keep her hair covered. Typically she will wear a wig that resembles real hair. Some Hasidic women shave their heads, which are covered when they are out in public. The reason for this is that they are taking the rules of modesty to the most extreme - if she has no hair, then it won't be possible for a man to see it.
Large family sizes
Hasidic Jewish people are known for having large families. 6-10 children is typical, and sometimes they have as many as 15 or more! This is another practice: reproduce as much as possible. It is considered a top rule which was commanded directly from god. This is the reason that even though some sects were nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, there are now communities packed with tens of thousands of people! And this is the reason that Hasidic neighborhoods are loaded with small children and school buses.
Shabbos aka Sabbath
Saturday is the holy day of the week. The agenda is to relax with family and spend time worshiping. Prayers are always 3 times per day - on Shabbos each prayer session is longer. The defining rule of Sabbos is that 'work' is prohibited. The interpretation of this extends overwhelmingly over almost every aspect of daily life. Activities that are prohibited include driving, using any electric device, cooking or handling currency. A Jewish person is not even allowed to carry any object outside of their home. All Hasidic ultra orthodox rules apply to Jewish people only - people who are not Jewish are not required to follow these customs or prohibitions. This is the reason that occasionally Hasidic Jewish people will ask a non-Jewish person to perform a basic task for them - such as turning on a light, turning on an air conditioner, etc.
Hasidic Jews have more than 8 different holidays that they practice. Here are the main holidays which are the most openly visible in an ultra orthodox neighborhood:
Sukkos is a 7 day holiday in autumn. It is celebrating the redemption of the Ancient Israelite Jews from Egypt. The main practice is to build a temporary hut called a 'sukkah' outside of the home. The purpose it to reminisce about the 40 years wandering in the desert, where the Jews had no permanent shelter and were protected by god. The sukkah must have a wooden roof which is partially open to the sky. The rule is that all meals must be eaten in the sukkah, and some Hasidic Jews with more stringent beliefs will study in it or even sleep in it.
Pesach aka 'Passover'
Pesach is an 8 day holiday in spring. It is also celebrating the Jewish redemption from Ancient Egypt. The main practice is to refrain from consuming any wheat and wheat-based products. A Hasidic Jew must purge them from his or her possession, too. The purpose for this rule is to commemorate the following: God hurried the Jews out of Egypt so quickly that the dough they were preparing to eat did not have time to rise and become bread. While they were leaving the dough baked in the hot sun and wound up as a thin loaf called 'matzah.' The rule on Pesach is that matzah is used as a substitute for bread or for any wheat-based product. There are 2 long feasts each called a 'seder.' The name 'Passover ' comes from the fact that God killed the first-born son of every Egyptian, but God 'passed over' the homes of all faithful Jews.
Purim is a joyful Jewish holiday in spring. It is celebrating how in Ancient Persia a plot to eradicate the Jewish race was thwarted by God through a series of small coincidences. The main practice is to celebrate festively by getting drunk on alcohol. The other main practice is to masquerade in costume. The whole day is a big party where food gifts are exchanged and charity is given.
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